My father cleaned the house on Saturdays, sending my mother off to have her hair done after her week of being homebound. He was quite odd we thought; all business and efficiency with no time for foolishness. My sisters and I skulked past him, avoiding any task he might decide to delegate. It irritated us that our day off was interrupted by something as inane as dusting or vacuuming. We had much better things to do. And so he labored and snarled if we complained or got in his way, knowing that our lack of interest was accompanied by our whole-hearted lack of ability.
It’s considered a badge off honor – the sign of a life well lived – if you can look back and say, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” I take exception. There are many things I’d change, but if I could re-live one episode in my life, I would help my father clean the house on Saturdays.
I’d learn how to make porcelain sparkle and carpet stand proud; to twirl the duster in my fingertips, to make throw rugs snap when I shook them out. These and all the other secret arts of cleaning I would learn. On the second Saturday of my apprenticeship I would insist my father go away with his clubs and spend the morning on the golf course. “Go have fun, dad. I’ll take care of this stuff.” That’s what I’d say to my father, if I could do it over again.
There are some things that you can’t change. Big things – like the past. Like somebody dying. My father passed away when he was fifty-three. Just barely enough time to raise the last of his children out of high school. He cleaned every Saturday.
It seems the past was rarely lived as well as it might have been. There are no great sins for most of us – it’s the little ones of selfishness or negligence or inaction that have piled up to become burdensome; our personal traveling bag of regrets. I know that memory is selective. It is incomplete and biased by flawed mechanisms of recall and emphasis. But I believe in the power of memory, and even – maybe especially – memories of regret. I believe that is how wisdom comes to us. And crucial to that process – the very lynchpin of it all – is forgiving oneself. Memory is there to teach, not to oppress. It is there to remind us of what we were in order that we might become – someone better, someone stronger and more caring.
Today – like every day – there will be choices. Choices of attitude – and words to say and words not to say. My father is beyond my reach now. But somewhere today, to someone I’ll be able to make a difference; to lift a burden, to bring forth a smile, to inspire courage. And in their memory, and in mine, a light will shine.
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